One of the great things about a hugely successful touring show (aside, of course, from a regular paycheck) is the opportunity it provides to tweak the design and experiment with new technology. The fourth North American production of Mamma Mia!, which began its tour in mid-February of 2002, has provided the sound design team (sound designers Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken and associate sound designer/production sound engineer David Patridge) with the opportunity to do a bit of both. Most notable is the inclusion of a Yamaha PM1D as its main mixing console. Provided by New Jersey-based Masque Sound, this marks the first Masque tour to use the new digital console.
Scott Kalata, director of sales services at Masque, says the decision to purchase the Yamaha PM1D console was based on a specific requirement by the production team. Having provided a variety of Yamaha products to many (the Broadway version of Mamma Mia! is using a Yamaha PM4000M console for monitors), Kalata was convinced that the PM1D would serve the production team's needs.
“The driving force behind the decision to use a Yamaha PM1D was based on a discussion between show producers and the production team, when we were informed that this tour would have a much more ambitious schedule,” explains Patridge. “From the outset, the producers have placed a heavy emphasis on the sound of the show, since the Abba songs are pretty complex,” adds Aitken. Aitken, Patridge, and Brian Beasley, the UK production associate sound designer, had to come up with a workable formula for the road tour, and after weighing a variety of options, the team went with the PM1D.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith, but since Wizz, a UK associate of mine, had used the console on five different projects [two UK productions are currently using the PM1D, including Forbidden Planet], it gave us an extra feeling of confidence,” notes Aitken. In December, Aitken, along with Beasley and Wizz, took loan of a control surface in London, renting a hotel room and set about programming the show offline.
Though not designed specifically with the theatre in mind, the PM1D has begun to find a niche among the theatre sound community. The console is a totally digital system, which performs all mixing and audio processing functions completely in the digital domain with 32-bit internal processing for superior audio quality. The Control Surface (CS1D) operates the digital audio engine (DSP1D), which can be located with the control surface or “remoted” to the stage or other convenient location. Configurable in both 48- and 96-channel versions with 48 mix busses, 24 matrices, and 12 DCAs (digitally controlled amplifiers), the system utilizes top-quality 28-bit A/D and 27-bit D/A conversion. Dual inputs on each channel provide 96 inputs for the 48-channel system and 192 inputs on the 96-channel version.
The main advantage of a digital console — for show producers, anyway — is the small amount of space it takes up. “We kill fewer seats, which the producers love, and because we now drive our monitor mixes from front of house, we carry one mixer frame instead of three, which the crew loves,” explains Aitken.
“We were sure we'd be very happy with the PM1D, both sonically and from an operational standpoint,” Patridge explains. “What we were concerned about more was that we don't have a long schedule for production time [three days installation time] and have to do the entire physical setup of the show from all aspects, automated scenery, lighting, everything. We knew the desk was flexible; it's just daunting as to how many variables exist with this show, like using the recall SAFE, a great function, and how to implement the desk in a way that is commensurate with what we do in theatre.”
Up until this production, the shows were using a splitter rack, and monitor mixes were stored on a separate desk (a 52-channel Yamaha PM 4000M) in the backstage area. No operator mixed monitors during the show; the PM4000 was being used as a matrix of mixes that were put together in advance and fed into the orchestra pit. By using a Masque Pit Mix 16-channel system, the members of the nine-piece band can control their own mixes. With the PM1D, the need for a monitor console and the splitter rack is eliminated.
The digital system is distributed based on input and output needs, and is laid out so electronics can be close to the inputs and output sources. Service trusses, flown 10' off the ground over the stage left wing, fit within the design of the scenery and hold various components of the system, including the PM1D engine and input frames, 32 inputs of wireless mics, a Sennheiser receiver rack, inputs for four stereo pairs of vocal booth microphones, the stereo right side of the PA, and the amplifiers. A crossover table runs from the engine to stage right, where another service truss resides holding the other output box and a second A08 for the left side of the PA. A bundle runs from the PM1D engine into the pit where a satellite rack containing two mic line input boxes and one output box feeds the pit mix system. Front of house, signal processors include TC Electronics M3000 reverbs and Focusrite Red 3 compressors.
Masque Sound supplies the entire sound system for all Mamma Mia! tours. For this production, the sound system also includes the new Sennheiser SK5012 transmitters, 3532 dual rackmount receivers, and a main PA cluster of four L'Acoustics ARCS cabinets supported by two MTD 112 cabinets for downfills, 10 L'Acoustics dV-DOSC cabinets; three dV-subs used as the main towers, and two SB218s a side, are all powered by QSC Powerlight 6.0 amplifiers. Eight d&b Acoustics E3 speakers are used for front fills and eight d&b E3 speakers are used for delays, all driven by P1200A amplifiers. Four SB218 subs round out the bottom end on the show.
Another major revision of the design for this latest tour involved reworking the speaker towers for faster deployment, creating a custom center cluster, and utilizing service trusses for all of the racks backstage. “We have been forging some new territory with our two US tours by designing ground support rigging systems for the L'Acoustics speakers,” says Patridge. “We started on Tour #1 with full-sized V-DOSC to match our non-touring productions worldwide. We had to have 61"-wide, 41"-deep, and 24'-high towers to accommodate the upper and lower arrays of V-DOSC, which we use on either side of the stage — pretty unmanageable on tour, but it prevented us from requiring the venues to install custom rigging points for us in order for the show to play.”
The sound designers collaborated with Gary Stocker at Masque Sound to come up with a rigging system in the towers that would install in less than three hours from start to finish. “Our goal is to reproduce the trademark sound of our sit-down shows on tour, and I think that we have come as close as we can to that given the schedule,” says Patridge. “We depend on always hanging our center cluster, barring architectural barriers. The most effective way to enable this was to design a module, which quickly snaps to a traditional 12" box truss. We hang truss and cluster cable as part of an advance, and when the show-to-show equipment arrives, the first thing off the truck is the center cluster. The cluster can be flown to trim in less than 10 minutes, and it can be struck just as quickly.”
Given the faster-paced schedule of the second US tour, the production team needed to cut down the amount of setup time spent placing and connecting the infrastructure backstage. The other major concern was getting the equipment to fit, regardless of venue. To that end, Tait Towers fabricated a stage-left and a stage-right service truss, designed to fly directly over the show deck. “If the deck fits, so do we,” explains Patridge. “Our intercom, video, loudspeaker management systems, amplifiers, and the wireless receivers are all permanently mounted on these trusses. The design allows for our main power feed to be dropped to either side depending on the venue — no need to run nasty feeder cable. Our antennae are captive on the trusses, so they remain the same from venue to venue relative to the performers.”
The other major change on this tour is the inclusion of the tiny new Sennheiser SK5012 transmitters, a product designed specifically for the theatre. The design team has been very pleased with its performance. “These are great,” says Patridge. “Finally, a small enough transmitter pack that can easily hide in costumes, wigs….armpits! Although these transmitters broadcast a less powerful 30mW signal compared to the SK50, which is 50mW, they are better in every way. Power consumption is reduced — only two AA batteries will power the units for upwards of four or five hours. Sonically, we feel like the SK5012 is an improvement as well. It reminds me of the sound of the SK2012, which for years was the Sennheiser standard, and which many people agree had a warmer sound than the SK50. The only drawback is the loss of the battery strength telemetry, which was a nice feature of the SK50.”
The many changes on the sound design for this particular tour are indicative of the ever-evolving nature of Mamma Mia! “The largest changes began to happen as the show was transposed from London to North America,” explains Patridge. “The system designs used in London are quite different than the way we do things here. I would have to say that the actual sound of the show has not changed all that much. We think that it is a winning formula and it has become so much a part of what the experience of the show is for the audiences.”